The Pandemic Effect: Is the Office Experience Changing?The Pandemic Effect: Is the Office Experience Changing?

We’ve recently become a bit better at one thing: building our online networks. When a global pandemic forces you to stay home, you find ways to stay connected – through Zoom, social media, collaboration apps. As it turns out, though, connecting remotely is probably not the best way to integrate into one of the most important communities you will join in your lifetime – the workplace.

So says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. Cappelli recently published the book, The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work and the Hard Choices We All Face about how COVID-19 is changing the office experience.

‘Living in Caves and Burning Furniture for Heat’

During a Meet the Authors discussion with Wharton’s Peter Fader, Cappelli talked about the themes in his book, including how employees and employers have been navigating the shift to working from home under quarantine. And will some of these remote-work policies persist post-pandemic?

While a lot of the future landscape is still unclear (will we be working more from home more or return full-time to the office?), Cappelli’s scholarly research led to some revelations that help define why and how the way we work is changing.

“If you’re a young person coming into the labor market…you should make a big push to be in the office because this is a huge investment in your career.” — Peter Cappelli, Management Professor, the Wharton School

He offered this solid advice to aspiring employees and business leaders of Generation Z: “I would say that if you’re a young person coming into the labor market, you should work in the office and [not at home]. Going into the workforce, you want to be really careful about working remotely because you don’t know an awful lot about how things work, maybe generally, but especially in the organization you’re going into,” he said. “You’d like to have the most opportunities possible to learn stuff. You should make a big push to be in the office because this is a huge investment in your career…you’ll learn all kinds of things about how the world works, business works and your organization works that you just can’t pick up remotely.”

Here are 5 more of Cappelli’s reflections on the Future of Work:

The start of something big. “If you had told me we wouldn’t be back in our offices for more than a year, honestly I would have said we’d be living in caves and burning furniture for heat. It’s amazing that we survived. It’s an astonishing story,” said Cappelli. “40% of Americans were working remotely, mainly from home, and 70% of people who could work from home because of the nature of work were in fact working from home. We were running this big experiment. The results are going to matter for a long time.”

But, what? “Part of the message of my book is that we don’t know how well things worked during the pandemic’s work-from-home phase,” said Cappelli in an interview with Brett LoGiurato, senior editor at Wharton School Press. “A lot of organizations said that things were fine. A lot of employees said they got their own work done. But closer examination is suggesting that maybe it wasn’t quite so great and things didn’t work quite as well (greater stress levels and work after the dinner hour). More to the point, there were a lot of things that were unique about the pandemic that are not going to carry over afterward. For example, most people felt a special effort to pull together…”

When given a choice, know the consequences. In a post-pandemic world, many employers are considering a hybrid work model. That means they would offer employees the option to work some days in the office and others at home, or possibly some employees the chance to work permanently in the office and others to work permanently from home. “The biggest single issue is that choices create problems,” said Cappelli. “The opportunity to work from home sounds like a great thing. Why not give everybody opportunities? But making those choices matters a lot. If you raise your hand and say, for example, ‘I would like to work from home permanently,’ that has big consequences for you and also for the organization.”

Could working from home be the totally wrong choice? Understanding what you’re getting yourself into matters a lot. There are so many options in terms of working from home: if you do it, how you do it, and how it’s carried out. “If employers think about offering remote-work opportunities for people, but [you’ve got to volunteer to work remotely], the first thing that does is create two tiers,” he added. “You’ve got one group of people in the office hanging out with the bosses, and you’ve got another one working remotely. One of the things we know from prior research is that the people who work remotely don’t do as well. They don’t get promoted as often, as quickly, their careers suffer. If you’re closer to the power, you’re probably going to do better.”

If you’re entering the job market soon, you should watch how things unfold. Many companies are still deciding how to proceed with workplace alternatives, so now is the time to tune into new workplace models that will shape the office of the future. “The thing that has surprised me is to see employers so all over the place,” noted Cappelli, adding that companies don’t want to be out of sync with the hiring market. “Most are doing what employers typically do, which is to wait and see what everybody else does. Silicon Valley companies in particular are trying to make people pay to work from home. They’re going to cut your pay if you work remotely. That was quirky… I think employers are losing patience with a lot of the work-from-home enthusiasm and are more interested in getting people back into the office.”

In the end, anyone who is faced with working alternatives should think hard about the tradeoffs. You might also see the potential switch to more at-home work as an opportunity for innovation around workplace dynamics. What entrepreneurial thinking can you bring to this changing landscape? “Social relationships hold people in organizations. With remote work, we’re breaking a lot of those social relationships,” observed Cappelli. “Employers are going to have to deal with that and figure out how to retain people.”

CONVERSATION STARTERS

In talking about working from home during the pandemic, Professor Peter Cappelli says, “We were running this big experiment. The results are going to matter for a long time.” What does he mean by that, especially in reference to the theme of this article? In what other ways and other industries has the pandemic been “a big experiment?”

As you think about entering the workforce in a few years, both as an intern and a full-time worker, what is your biggest takeaway from this article and Dr. Cappelli’s research?

If given the opportunity, would you work from home or from the office? Why or why not?

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